Blizzard, Nostalrius, and the Classic Server Question

I spent yesterday hiking in Muir Woods where, among the giant redwoods, there is no WiFi service.  I didn’t bring my iPad with me in any case, but it was a day away from the internet.

Still, the last story I saw in Feedly before my wife and I headed out stuck with me.  As you may have guessed from the title, it was about Blizzard sending its legal team after Nostalrius.

Nostalrius is/was hosting a private/pirate World of Warcraft server that was offering a classic/vanilla WoW experience, along with a classic Burning Crusade focused experience.

That is not a new thing.  A simple Google search will turn up some alternatives offering various WoW experiences.  Such servers come and go.  I spent a bit of time poking about on the now defunct Emerald Dream server.  Posts from that interlude can be found by following the right tag.

You no take catch phrase!

You no take catch phrase! Also, a metaphor!

It has been a while since Blizzard has bothered to go after such a server.  The last I recall was the case against Alyson Reeves and Scape Gaming.  However, that case was special because the Scape Gaming server was bringing in real money from players, to the tune of 3 million dollars.

That one appeared to be about the money, with Blizzard getting a life-ruining 88.6 million dollar judgement at the end of the trial.

If Nostalrius was in it for the money, then this is probably about that.  Running some alternative experience for free is one thing, but making money off of a Blizzard trademark won’t stand.

Nostalrius, on their site and in their open letter/petition at Change.org, doesn’t mention money.

So let us assume for the moment that money wasn’t the issue, if only because the whole thing isn’t very interesting unless money was not a factor.

Why go after Nostalrius if they are not making money off of Blizzards works?

While it may not be about money, I imagine it is still about numbers.  Nostalrius claims to have had over 800,000 registered users and as many as 150,000 active users on its classic experience servers.

150K, if true, is a pretty respectable user count, and doubly so for such a server that must, by necessity, keep a low profile.  That is a big enough number to attract attention.  I’d bet there are some live MMORPGs out there that wouldn’t mind being able to claim 150K active users.

In that scenario, if it isn’t about the money, is Blizzard flexing its legal muscles just to smack down somebody who has gotten a bit too popular, a bit too brazen?  Is this like being the most popular speakeasy in town during prohibition, something that expanded to far to allow the authorities to pretend isn’t there?

Or is this more of a reaction to the discontent many players… or many former players… feel for World of Warcraft these days?  Because you cannot deny that there is some level of discontent.  Having nearly half your player base unsubscribe… and maybe more than half by now, but we’ll never know because the news was so bad that Blizzard stopped reporting it… is not an endorsement for staying the current course.

And, if it is a reaction, will there be any upside?

Because there is a sliver of hope that this might mean Blizzard has seen the light when it comes to the retro experience.  With multiple classic servers having popped up over the years, with 150K users on the one they just effectively shut down, and with the success of retro servers for EverQuest, EverQuest II, and RuneScape, that maybe, just maybe, somewhere down in Anaheim the ball may have started rolling that will eventually give players some sort of official vanilla WoW experience despite past statements that they would never go that route.

Blizzard has the money, they have the staff, and they have a huge number of former players who would resubscribed just to try something like that out, enough that costs would likely be covered very quickly, leading to profits.

I know it isn’t as easy as just pulling some old code out of source control and throwing it out there.  To do this right, and Blizzard couldn’t bring themselves to do this in a half-assed way I am sure, it would likely have to be played as a separate game with its own version of the client.  No transfers from current WoW, no cash shop, no flying mounts, no WoW Tokens… basically a bunch of the extra-cost addons that Blizzard has attached to the game over the years to boost revenue.  So an official WoW classic server done right would not have the same revenue potential as any of the current servers.

However, the cynic in me doesn’t think that even enters into it.  That part of me doesn’t believe for a second that Blizzard even sees the distinction between a WoW classic server and the current state of the game.  That part of me strongly suspects that somebody down in Anaheim thinks that 150K… or maybe 800K… people were playing WoW for free and that they needed to put a stop to that right now.  If people want to play WoW, they can pay the $15 a month like everybody else.

Which is fully within Blizzard’s rights.  They can, and one might argue must, step in and defend their intellectual property.

But in that scenario, there is no official WoW classic server, or even an acknowledgement that such a thing could even be.  Unfortunately, the cynic in me is right more often than not.

So what is the real reason and the view towards the future with WoW?

Others on this topic:

23 thoughts on “Blizzard, Nostalrius, and the Classic Server Question

  1. Tesh

    I’m not convinced that Blizzard understands their user base. Raiders, sure, but the rest of the players? Not so much. I see this simply as an IP protection move. They likely see no reason to make a classic server. It isn’t something that they care about or think is valuable, so they can’t imagine a demand for it.

    Like

  2. bhagpuss

    I rarely get the impression that many large gaming companies have a clear idea of what they are doing. And after all, why should they? No other entertainment providers do. If you’ve worked closely with books, as I have for nearly two decades now, it becomes impossible to take most publishers seriously.

    They have little or no idea in advance what will appeal to the public and when something does take off they have little or no idea why. The vast majority of titles make no money at all and vanish as soon as they appear, but moment any title breaks out and does well then every publisher scrabbles to copy it, usually right down to the style of illustration used on the cover and the form of words in the title. They then try to milk whatever trend they think they have spotted for far longer than the public retain an interest.

    Much the same happens in movies and tv so it’s hardly surprising it also happens in gaming. Except that games, particularly MMOs, offer a much deeper and more detailed opportunity to analyze exactly what it is that the paying customers are up to than books or movies or tv. On that basis you might expect games producers to be smarter and better at milking a trend or, less cynically, of giving their customers more of what they want. The evidence for that seems slim.

    ArenaNet are in the process of repairing the damage they’ve done to their own IP over the last twelve to eighteen months, damage that players and commentators told them about repeatedly and vociferously. Whether that will work we wait with interest to see. Blizzard, however, doesn’t have all its eggs in the one basket the way ANet does, so perhaps there won’t ever be a turning point like that, when someone big enough to be heard finally says “turn this ship around before we hit the rocks” .

    I don’t think Blizzard will ever do a true retro-WoW server. I think they are a) too proud b) genuinely think the current game is much improved and c) fear that if they did an alarming number of their current players would move across, possibly leaving them running a nostalgia theme park as their main business. It’d be nice to be proved wrong though. i missed Vanilla WoW. I’d love to have a go at it now.

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  3. Jenks

    Current Blizzard hates/resents past Blizzard. Their reactions are hugely telling on the rare occasion you can corner one into a response regarding the “good old days.” If you prefer the old, you will get something between “you think you do, but you don’t” and Jay Wilson’s classic “fuck that loser” about David Brevik.

    If this was a business decision, there will be an official classic server opening any minute. If it was an IP protecting decision, they would go after every private server no matter how small. No, the reason is much simpler. These are ego maniacal fuckwits who never, ever will accept the fact that they are wrong about anything. Presented with huge slap-you-in-the-face evidence that they are wrong about what their players want, they’d rather just shut it down continue to pretend that they’re right. True piles of shit IMO.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Shintar

    Thanks for the shout-out!

    Actually Nostalrius didn’t have a BC server, that was just something they were working on for the future. And from everything I’ve been told they were actively avoiding taking money, to the point where they only allowed donations to cover server hosting costs to go straight to the hosting company, to make sure the money never touched their hands.

    Like

  5. Gevlon

    1: running a 150K user server for free is impossible. They must made money because they needed it for server costs. And coding. And support. And profit.

    2: Blizzard must put an end to any Vanilla thing before it becomes too popular, because:

    3: Blizzard will never-ever make a Vanilla server for a good reason. Vanilla wasn’t great for its graphics. Nor for it’s content. Nostalgia aside, many quality of life things were missing from Vanilla. Don’t tell me that you enjoyed walking until lvl 40 with only one flightpoint per zone.

    Vanilla was great because in vanilla if you were skilled (or nolife), you could rise above the masses. Having epic meant something. Not everyone was equal. Blizzard want to erase even the memory of this age, to cater to the “casual players”.

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  6. kiantremayne

    I don’t know. Could just be IP protection – copyright is yours regardless, but trademarks have to be defended or you lose them (which is why “biro” is now a generic term for a ballpoint pen). Especially with the movie coming up, ActiBlizz’s lawyers may have felt they needed to make an example to show that Thou Shalt Not Take The Name Of Warcraft In Vain.

    I can see why nostalgia servers are a headache Blizzard don’t want to take on. Would you do one as a ‘progression’ server a la EQ, in which case it soon gets to the point of moving on from vanilla to [insert name of whichever patch or expansion you personally think the rot set in]? Or do you do one permanently frozen at a chosen patch level, in which case there’s only so much content and those players will sooner or later have had their fill and get bored with it. There’s only so many times you can run Molten Core, Blackwing Lair, AQ and Naxx even if the chosen patch level is ‘just before it stopped being vanilla’.

    Also, Wildstar would appear to have delivered conclusive proof that a modern audience’s reaction to good old-fashioned, uphill through the snow attunement grinds is “fuck this shit” and I have to agree. I did my attunements back in the old days before I had kids. The human lifespan isn’t long enough for me to do those again.

    Like

  7. Balthazar

    I’ve never understood why Blizzard doesn’t put up a variety of servers catering to different playstyles. I think people and/or they are overthinking this. Like Gevlon pointed out, the old client sucks for a variety of reasons. Just put up a server locked at old world content or a progression server and adjust xp and difficulty closer to vanilla. Done your vanilla raiding and PvP to death? Had your fill of nostalgia? Start a new character on our BC server or transfer your existing character there, or to a live server, etc. Why not open a new live server occassionally so that people who want to can start over again on a fresh server? Maybe even a casual or family-friendly server with additional rules or admin support catering to that demographic?

    If anyone can afford to play around with different server types and rulesets it is Blizzard, but all we’ve gotten for 10+ years are PvP and RP designations. I think some type of WoW progression server would be hugely popular. They are losing money by not doing this. How many more subs could they retain during these year-long content droughts that always occur between expansions if they would give people a larger variety of server types providing different gameplay experiences? Open up a progression server during the content drought and I’m sure they’d see their server cancellations slow and even new subscribers coming back to try the new server.

    The fact that these emulators keep popping up and are so popular should be evidence enough alone for them to recognize the potential outweighs any perceived risks. And I think it will get harder for them to continue parroting the mantra that there just isn’t enough interest in it, at least with a straight face that is.

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  8. Telwyn

    I have mixed feelings on this topic. I did try a ‘classic’ server fairly recently and it only took one gaming session for me to get bored of the nostalgia thing. I just don’t find the gameplay that compelling compared to modern, quality PVE content. I do wish the levelling wasn’t quite so laughably easy and unbalanced in WoW – really they need to revamp the abilities and XP rate for most of the game (others have posted recently on just how crazy-overpowered characters are).

    I do think Blizzard need to be more open to varied playstyles even within the live game. Their obsession with raiding clearly hasn’t gone down that well given their admission that the lack of 5-man dungeons in Draneor was a mistake. I wouldn’t want to play an official timelocked server but I expect it would be popular enough with ex-players and current players to pay for the costs involved.

    Like

  9. NetherLands

    I think that, sadly, Jenks and Bhagpuss are on the right track.

    There seem to be very few rational reasons for Blizz to not open some sort of nostalgia server (even if just by ‘pulling a Project 1999’ Privateer Server -thing) as in an apparently decreasing MMORPG market you’d think you’d want to ‘keep in the IP’ as many of your (former) subscribers as you can get. I have a hard time believing Blizzard would be lacking in means compared to Daybreak and Jagex and such.

    What did surprise me about this the most in general is the sheer size of Nostralius (and by extension, people who chose to play on a nostalgia server instead of ‘just ‘ a pirated free WoW server). 800k accounts of which 150k are active…wow. Just wow.

    Like

  10. Syl

    It’s hard to speculate reasons but during their golden heyday, I doubt Blizzard would’ve bothered unless there IS money involved. But WoW is more and more under scrutiny, so maybe that added to the general discontent.

    What makes no sense is how Blizz are clinging to whatever pride/ignorance it is that keeps them from introducing progression servers. If a large enough part of the fanbase enjoys it (for whatever reason) and if there’s sizeable cash to make, why the hell not do it? It doesn’t sound like a particularly business smart Blizzard that, and they usually really are.

    Like

  11. Codeblue

    Stealing is stealing. Blizzard can make a classic if they want – and as old as I am – I still remember that I wouldn’t want to go back and play Vanilla – I may would pay $5 a month to go and look at it but I would not invest the hours in it people have been in fake servers. It is a very hot topic right now – I wonder if Blizzard did a 180 and said ok here is Vanilla – no cash shop, no support, running on original hardware (have you seen the original hardware lol it was hideous) you can play it …even if it was minor cost to play it vs live or even free – would people still want other classic servers not run by blizzard.

    Like

  12. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Codeblue – “Stealing is stealing.”

    That is simplifying the situation in the extreme. I could Google up a half dozen more such servers and Blizzard, who I am assured has access to Google as well, hasn’t bothered them. Blizzard hasn’t bothered any private/pirate server in almost five years, and they are all stealing according to the letter of the law. Blizzard legal could shut them all down in a week and send a very firm message that they won’t tolerate this sort of thing. People would be very reluctant to start a new server if Blizz went for a clean sweep.

    But they haven’t so far. So what is the message from that? We don’t care unless you are trying to make money or get too big? This is the same Blizzard that went after somebody who let you play StarCraft, bypassing Battle.net, over the internet.

    As for who would play Vanilla, I suspect that if such a server option was offered, there would be a huge surge of demand that would overwhelm any servers Blizz put up. There is a huge amount of nostalgia for Vanilla.

    I suspect that the surge would diminish as people recalled what Vanilla really meant, plus whatever compromises Blizz would have to make to create such a server type. But, as I have learned over the years, there is no feature or mechanic in a game that is so bad that somebody doesn’t love it. Every horrible feature is somebody’s favorite feature.

    I would guess that the people for whom such servers represented their favorite thing in WoW, given the population of people who have played WoW over the last dozen years, would be sufficient to sustain at least 4-5 well populated servers at the low end of things.

    But it will never happen. Blizzard has a huge team on WoW compared to similar MMORPGs and the fastest they can even do an expansion is once every two years or avoid year long content droughts in their most profitable title. Barring all the ego or politics or whatever of making such a decision, I am not sure they could, as an organization, make such a move. And within Activision-Blizzard itself, I am sure they would rather have whatever resources such a project would require working on a new title as opposed to spending time resurrecting an old one that would compete with themselves.

    Like

  13. Talarian

    It’s quite probable that Blizzard doesn’t have a good way to prop up a Vanilla server that would be of professional quality. I imagine if they could, especially given EQ’s popularity, they would.

    You can’t just use a current client against an old server, there’s been a massive number of protocol changes over the years. Security bugs on both client and server have likely been fixed over the years that they couldn’t easily back port. Old server code requires specific server hardware/blades. They may not even have many folks left who would understand the classic code, and even if they did, 10 – 14 years (given they’d have started coding long before release) is a long time to forget everything about it.

    And that’s all assuming they even have access to the code and old assets still. Depending on how good/bad their original code repository was and how they managed backups, and 14 years of code history, it might be gone. And if that’s the case, it’s doubtful reverse engineering the old client and all that content is worth the cost as Wilhelm mentions above me.

    Then you have the Battle.net issues. Original WoW wasn’t BNet integrated, and we know Blizzard is working on updating WCIII and DII at the very least to work on modern systems, so I imagine current BNet integration for those is likely coming. The launcher should be a minor amount of work because they can already point to different clients (Beta vs. Live, for example). But these are extra things that Blizzard would probably want implemented to bring a “new” launched product, even if it’s old like classic WoW, into the fold.

    On top of all that, maybe they do have all that, but maybe they’re waiting for WoW to no longer be actively developed to avoid splitting their player base, such that it is.

    Frankly, I’m rather impressed that EQ has managed this with their classic servers, and props to their teams for pulling it off. But I highly doubt we’ll ever see it for WoW. This shutdown is quite likely just Blizzard defending their territory, nothing more.

    Like

  14. Balthazar

    @ Talarian

    Really? If numerous third party volunteers can pull off a reasonable facsimile of vanilla WoW, it doesn’t seem like it should take that much effort from Blizzard, with their considerable resources, to put something similar out.

    Like

  15. Codeblue

    Geez William you could have started a new blog post about this by now :P I also wanted to say I concur that If Blizz wanted to they could shut down or make it extremely sticky for people to put up new servers they would and I know the fake ones have been up for years. I wonder if this could be a opportunity to introduce World of Warcraft Classic (TM) as a console game?

    Like

  16. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Codeblue – No kidding. Lots of long and thoughtful comments here for sure, though not as many comments as some of my EVE Online posts this week.

    @Balthazar – The problem is that an amateur project can be whipped together and if it isn’t perfect, well, tough luck.

    But if Blizzard was going to charge you for it, well, that is a whole different level of expectations. Furthermore, Blizzard has a reputation for quality, so doing a half-assed job just isn’t something they can allow. So it is the money and expectations… but mostly the fact that Blizz firmly believes the game they have today is better than what they had to offer even in 2006 when a bunch of improvements had be added in, so in their eyes giving you that experience would be a bad thing, our protests aside.

    Like

  17. Talarian

    @Balthazar

    Thing is, we don’t know how many hours it took these volunteers to reverse engineer the engine. We don’t know how close to the real thing they are, either. Judging from some private servers I’ve seen, they tend to be extremely buggy (for good reason, reverse engineering isn’t always precise; there’s often some guesswork involved). As Wilhelm mentions, there’s a different level of expectations from paying customers and Blizzard themselves.

    Let’s say Blizzard set aside 5 programmers for a year to do this project. Dredge up the old code, bring it up to speed on both client and server, get their BNet integration, get their security fixes, get it integrated with modern Blizzard auth servers, and so on.

    That’s in the range of probably $600,000 – $750,000 between salaries, benefits, HR, legal, equipment, etc., and I’m probably guessing low here. They’d need 40,000 – 50,000 customers for 1 month to break even at $15/month. They’d probably make that for sure, but that also doesn’t include server hardware, server ops people, data center hosting costs, testers, marketing, and more. It’s honestly likely a marginal enough return on investment that it doesn’t make a bunch of sense to set aside resources for the project. Even if they managed 200,000 customers for a month and a half average, that’s “only” $4.5 million, which over half of that is likely gone for expenses.

    When those 5 programmers and other staff could be building the next Hearthstone/HotS/Overwatch instead? The ROI doesn’t actually look that great.

    Like

  18. kiantremayne

    @Talarian – indeed – and that’s assuming they can get $15/month from people playing the vanilla server, on top of what they’re already paying. People playing on a vanilla private server will fall into one of three camps from Blizzard’s point of view:

    * ones who have active subscriptions to WoW 2016, and also indulge in nostalgia
    * ones who aren’t paying subs currently, but would if Blizzard offered them a vanilla option
    * freeloading scum who will disappear as soon as they have to pay.

    From Blizzard’s point of view, only those in category two will actually generate revenue in return for launching a vanilla server, assuming that it is included in the server list accessible for a standard WoW subscription. They could try monetising category one by charging extra for access to the special servers, but the nerdrage that would generate would be of truly biblical proportions.
    I would expect that some bright ActiBlizz executive has done a bit of research into the likely vanilla playerbase, as well as retention rates on vanilla servers, to project a revenue stream for a vanilla server, compare it to the costs, and come up with an answer that says ‘no bonus for YOU!’ If it was a worthwhile project (as in sufficient return on investment) I don’t think the artistic sensibilities of the WoW 2016 devs would be allowed to stand in the way of it going ahead.

    Like

  19. Balthazar

    I agree that, from what I know of Blizzard, organizationally it would be more challenging for them than it should be because they long ago forgot what it meant to have to use resources efficiently or even attempt to actually follow a reasonable development cycle and will completely over think it and have to make it some huge project to get it “perfect” if they ever decided to do it.

    But, it doesn’t have to be that way. Just do what Daybreak did. Put out a reasonable facsimile of what vanilla was to the extent you believe you have the resources you can devote to it and recoup. For them, there were some systems and changes that they just couldn’t revert or that required too many resources to do so. I think players will understand this and appreciate the effort nevertheless. Personally, I’d be happy just with a new server with vanilla-like leveling progression. As I mentioned above, they could try a variety of different server-types this way. They have the revenue and customer base to support taking a few risks and in this I think the evidence is clear that there is a demand out there.

    Then, if the project brings in new accounts or data shows you are retaining more accounts than you were before, sure devote more resources to it. Plus, once you’ve done the front end of the work you described above, now you are bringing in 3 million a month and not spending as much in development costs. Even if subs fall as quickly as they do for the live game (nearly 50% in something like 6 months, if I recall correctly?). You’re still bringing in over 1.5 million per month after six months and spending comparatively few development resources on it.

    I’ll fully admit I don’t know a damn thing about running a game company, so maybe I am just completely naive to the hurdles here. But it seems to me that if Daybreak can do it and third party volunteers can do it, surely you can understand why there is a bit of skepticism when Blizzard says they can’t make it viable.

    Like

  20. Kryss

    As for server progresson, they can simple open new server with BC and offer free transfer from vanilla for MC geared characters for example. If most chars migrate from vanilla, close it, if not, i don’t think maintaining couple “nostalgia” servers with minimum level of support and no development team attached, will bankrupt blizzard. The can even theme all this with some Infinite Dragonflight timetravel storyline.

    Like

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